By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 26, 2006
TYRE, Lebanon -- Hassan Tehini does not want to go home anymore.
"I was so homesick for Aita al-Shaab. Now I don't miss it at all," the 10-year-old said weakly, trying to cough gently as he slumped against the wall of a hospital in this coastal city.
Lucky to be alive, Hassan was recovering from massive abdominal wounds inflicted by what he and two cousins thought was a small ball, unearthed from the rubble of their home town and perfectly suited for a game of catch. It was really one of the small explosive devices spewed by so-called cluster munitions -- bombs, shells or rockets used by the Israeli military that burst in midair and spread smaller bombs over a wide area.
Hassan and his two cousins, like dozens of other Lebanese civilians, became casualties of war after the 33-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah had subsided. Since the guns fell silent on Aug. 14, unexploded cluster bombs dropped by Israeli warplanes or duds fired by artillery have killed 12 people and wounded 39, according to Chris Clarke, head of the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center attached to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Of those, two of the dead and 11 of the wounded were children.
Todd Hart, another U.N. de-mining specialist, told journalists Thursday that U.N. and Lebanese government mine-disposal teams have discovered and destroyed a dozen normal bombs, plus 1,800 smaller bomblets sprayed out from cluster bombs.
Clarke said that "as of today, we have confirmed 289 cluster-bomb locations. This figure, which was 140 on Tuesday, is rising daily. And many of them are indeed inside residential areas."
"We are finding many cluster bombs in the rubble -- they just blend in," he noted. One type commonly being found, he said, is shaped like a small green ball, larger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball.
Clarke said the State Department was investigating whether Israel had violated U.S. guidelines for American-made cluster munitions that ban their use in civilian areas.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are also looking into the use of cluster munitions, he said. In a report released this week, Amnesty International said it had found huge craters in roads linking southern villages, attributing them to Israeli aerial bombardment and artillery fire.
"In some cases, cluster bomb impacts were identified," the report said. "The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who fled the bombardment now face the danger of unexploded munitions as they head home," it added.
A military spokesman in Israel said, "All the weapons and munitions used by the Israel Defense Forces are legal under international law, and their use conforms with international standards."
Shawn Messick, an American assigned to the U.N. Joint Logistics Center from the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, explained that cluster weapons are designed to burst in midair, scattering small bomblets that do not all detonate immediately.
"I think the biggest hazards are the unexploded submunitions, and the smallest, fired from artillery, are the most dangerous," said Messick, who has worked in Kosovo and northern Iraq with disaster response teams.
Such dangers awaited Hassan and his family when they returned home to Aita al-Shaab, a town of about 8,000 people located next to the Israeli border, about 55 miles south of Beirut. The family fled on July 15, three days after the fighting broke out, and moved from town to town until the cease-fire took effect nearly a month later. During the fighting, the population in Aita al-Shaab dwindled to 1,000, and 16 people were killed there -- eight civilians and eight Hezbollah guerrillas, according to residents.
Hassan said he had yearned for Aita al-Shaab during his month on the road, homesick for his house and his playmates. When his uncle, Ahmad Tehini, went to check on the family's house after the cease-fire, the boy went along and refused to leave, remaining behind with his grandparents.
On Aug. 17, Hassan and his cousins Sikna Merei Qassem and Marwa Ahmed Merei, both 12, went out to scout the new landscape of shattered stone and concrete around their homes. "We wanted to see which houses were destroyed. The whole neighborhood is broken," Hassan said.
But they really wanted to play again. Hassan unearthed a ball covered in dust and asked Sikna to throw it his way. It exploded between them. Hassan's intestines spilled out, splattering blood.
"I started screaming," Hassan recalled. "The bomb threw me two or three meters away. My legs, my clothes were soaked in blood."
Youssef Saleh, a neighbor, saw them run in his direction. "Hassan's guts were hanging out, and Sikna was moaning," Saleh said. "I carried my nephew in my arms and took Sikna and drove them to Rmeish." Marwa, who suffered minor wounds in her stomach and chest, was taken in another car.
From Rmeish, civil defense workers moved the three children to an emergency room at the Salah Ghandour Hospital in Bint Jbeil. Red Cross workers then took them to Tyre.
"After two and a half hours on the road, the three children were in shock," said Abed al-Hussein Sharafeddine, the anesthetist who presided over surgery on Hassan at Jabal Amel Hospital in Tyre.
Hassan's intestines had been severed in three places, requiring 13 sutures in one spot, according to Sharafeddine.
Like Hassan, Sikna was bleeding profusely. "The blood spurted out of my stomach like that -- pshhh ," Sikna said, sitting on her hospital bed clutching her nightgown. When she reached the hospital in Tyre, doctors had to insert a breathing tube in her windpipe because shrapnel embedded in one of her lungs prevented her from breathing on her own.
While Hassan recovers in the hospital, his relatives struggle to rebuild their lives. His mother said their home in Aita al-Shaab no longer existed.
"We could not find our clothes," she said. "Our walls were flattened to be bulldozed. We have no money. We are living with my brother-in-law in Aytat, four families on top of one another.
"We are still afraid," she added. "The Israelis are still there, and the children cannot play there anymore."